Crowning Glory

What makes greatness?

A very exciting weekend for horse-racing as after 37 years we finally have a Triple Crown winner in American Pharoah! I was walking by a sports bar and decided I wouldn’t linger because of the stream of disappointments over the years. I have written about competition and racehorses before — see Horse Sense. But this was a very special victory. I have been thinking a lot more about competition after reading Peter Thiel’s book. The parallels to racing are perhaps not obvious as horse-racing is becoming increasingly arcane in an era of professional team sports. But one of Thiel’s more interesting premises is that competition is a destructive force.

There is no more explicit competition than a horse-race — the team behind a race-horse is massive including even barnyard animals but there are some qualities that make great horses different. I rewatched the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont stakes for American Pharoah and was very impressed in particular about the Preakness win — it was a very slushy track and he won with a good lead.

Still I couldn’t help reflecting on a more important racehorse in history — Secretariat — the Triple Crown winner in 1973 — he was the 9th Triple Crown winner and the first in 25 years. He was a giant tank of a horse — a chestnut called Big Red — there hasn’t been a racehorse like him since. He still holds the record for the Triple Crown all three races.

History is important — there is a link to the past in American Pharoah — Terilingua — one of Secretariat’s fillies — he was known as a more influential sire of fillies than colts is the great-grand-dam of American Pharoah. But it’s hard to speculate on the genetics of things though I will write very soon about how a predisposition to tanning can be traced to a gene.

What’s interesting is Secretariat — he really is the unicorn of horse-racing — didn’t have an auspicious start to his career — he was a skittish starter out of the gates and had a victory of his reversed for hedging in another horse. This was something that continued into his crowning days — he was last out of the gates for the Derby and made a leisurely way to the lead before he set the record. This makes his Derby record a result of fine competition by Sham who would have been a Triple Crown contender in any other year. His Preakness win was by 2 and 1/2 lengths and impressive.

But to understand racing greatness you have to see Secretariat at Belmont — it is the most beautiful horse race and I wish dearly I had been alive then to see it — he wins by 31 lengths — he is only in competition with himself. That is what defines greatness — it’s not the records — it’s a horse running his own race heedless of the environment — the purest athleticism ignoring competition. As impressive as American Pharoah’s win is he is still not a Secretariat — that is what makes greatness and I feel what Peter Thiel was talking about. It’s not merely about finding a race you want to win but a race you will be running with your heart out even after you’ve “won”. Maybe it’s easier if you’re a horse but it’s a worthy goal for everyone.

Ha — apparently not a unique comparison — see Nate Silver’s blog for more interesting data!

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